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This article was published in the September 2016 print edition of the Ocracoke Observer. Tomorrow we will post a follow-up on this visit.
By Jock Lauterer
Take six inner-city urban teens, send them to a remote island village far across the water from the mainland, take away their smart phones, put cameras, pens and computers in their hands and set them loose to photograph and write about island life, and what do you get?
A little chaos, a dose of culture shock, a boatload of surprises, plus lots of what the locals call “the Ocracoke Effect,” in which community connectivity produces a sort of invisible free-floating chemistry of serendipity that pervades island life.
In early August, the Durham VOICE, a community newspaper written by teens, and the Durham nonprofit teamed up with the Ocracoke Observer to bring the teens to this Outer Banks island for a working weekend.
All six teens spent the last year as writer-photographers for the VOICE, the community newspaper and website (durhamvoice.org) serving central Durham, created seven years ago as a gang intervention community project.
Two years ago, Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich, co-owners of the Ocracoke Observer, broached the idea of inviting the VOICE youth to learn more about the workings of another community newspaper, learn about island culture and document stories of the islanders. Their internships are supported by Julie Wells, the PYO executive director and Workplace/Mentoring Coordinator Carlton Koonce. Other mentors serving as volunteers on the trip included Eric Johnson of the UNC-CH Office of Student Aid and Assistant Professor Joe Cabosky of the School of Media and Journalism.
Each student was given an assignment. Gwen Payne wrote about Emilia Jordan, a 10-year-old who, with Maren Donlon, cohosts “Island Girl Talk,” a radio show on the village’s community radio station WOVV 90.1 FM and wovv.org (which publisher Vankevich helps anchor).
Natasha Graham interviewed Emily Schweninger, an international health professional working with UNICEF in Equatorial Guinea and focusing on HIV prevention.
LaMon Jones wrote about world-ranked judo master Gustavo Sanchez.
Christian Lawrence spent a day with a 17-year-old entrepreneur, Kaylee Gaskins, who runs her own smoothie stand.
Yusuf Shah learned the story of the Hutcherson family, owners of the village’s iconic Variety Store.
Bruce Wilkerson wrote about how Leinbach and Vankevich, both transplanted northerners, came to own the village’s newspaper.
At trip’s end, the student shared their take-aways from the experience.
Here are some of their comments: “I really have learned a lot. I love the vibe of this island and this community. I wish Durham was like Ocracoke. Then it could help the community rise.” – Bruce Wilkerson “I’ve never been on a boat before; never been to a bonfire, never been on a beach trip…and I learned I’m good at adapting to new situations.”— Natasha Graham. “I have gained new skills as a reporter by being here.” — LaMon Jones “I’ve never gotten off the mainland before so that’s pretty cool. And this place is better than Durham. There’s a lot of culture here.” — Gwen Payne “This experience really brought me out. Everybody knows each other and is so friendly. Y’all are like family here.” — Yusuf Shah.
All of the young journalists were interviewed on WOVV and played a song of their choice. Gwen Payne elected to sing hers. It was not all work. The group toured the island, consumed an Ocracoke special—a seafood feast prepared by Captain Puddle Ducks–attended a Molasses Creek concert; made a few trips to the beach, including an evening bonfire and a morning stroll through Springer’s Point.
The stories from the teens’ Ocracoke trip will be in several publications including the Durham VOICE, the Ocracoke Observer and PYO’s website and newsletter.
Jock Lauterer, senior lecturer, UNC-CH School of Media and Journalism, is the originator and project leader of The VOICE.